There's a growing need for good project managers at parties and top campaigns. This skill deficit has been highlighted by the spectacular failure of several recent political data projects. From the Conservatives in Canada and their ill-fated C-Vote project through the Conservatives in Great Britain with Project Merlin and ORCA for the Romney campaign, expensive and costly data failures are piling up.
There are a number of reasons why these projects fail. Most of them revolve around scope, leadership and budget. The nature of campaigns adds extra strain. Increasingly, success in election years is tied to effective project management in non-election years. Now, the parties and candidates that win are the ones that can manage their own projects to success despite some of their natural impediments.
Parties in the past were staffed mainly with permanent volunteers managed by a small contingent of paid professionals. The paid staffers, while certainly more advanced in skill set, had essentially the same job as the armies of volunteers that they coordinated: identify support, communicate the message, promote the candidates and get out the vote. While the skill set required of the political professional has changed, the pool from which these professionals are hired hasn't.
Due to factors like personal connections, trust and security, the same group of uber volunteers who fed the ranks of paid staffers in the past are also the places parties are looking for specialized staff. Hiring these types of folks for political organizers, communications specialists, and other party staples is smart management. But none of these skill sets have what is required for major data-project development.
Large-scale, culture-changing projects are a different entity than what traditional party staffers are comfortable with. They require stable strategic direction, attentive leadership, well-defined scope and deadlines, and long-term budgets and timelines. The specialized staffs needed for these projects have to be as knowledgeable about political events as their operative counterparts, yet maintain an objective distance and focus on the goals of their projects.
For a project such as a major database revamp, the long-term commitment and budget must be accepted at all levels of the organization. Moreover, the project managers must be given the time and resources to be successful, including the timelines that may span multiple election cycles. This isn't to say the projects should be allowed free reign and never ending extensions. Firm expectations on deliverables and deadlines are key, but the timelines are sometimes longer than those in the campaign world are accustomed to.
There are a number of key steps that can be taken by parties and campaigns to reduce the risk of failure for large projects. The first step is to bring in outside eyes. From the very beginning, the project should have the critical eyes of someone not currently embroiled in the day-to-day running of the organization. Once the right hires are made, here are some ways to help manage a successful data project.
Define the scope early. This will save time and money down the road. It's not just about determining what not to include, but ensure all essential components are identified. Determine exactly what the project's goal is. Nonspecific mission statements don't help anyone. You should be able to list the business problems that you are trying to solve off the top of your head.
Continually pay attention to project advancement. While outside support is essential, those who know the political business need to ensure that the project is understood by those developing it. Receiving regular updates and questions from the development team is a sign of a project on track. Moving deadlines and vague answers are a sign a project is starting to stray from mission objectives. If business oversight and goal measurement transforms into micro-management both time and financial resources will be wasted.
Have the right budget in place. Projects are expensive. Even a limited projects will cost significantly more than the business managers believe it will. Setting the budget before the scope will lead to gross overspending and the cutting of corners at the same time. Understand your goal and determine what it costs to reach it before starting. Effective planning and budgeting will reduce your organization's risk exposure, both politically and financially.
Chris M. Rougier is the principal consultant at Toronto-based Endgame Strategy. A version of this piece appeared in The Prince Arthur Herald.